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The Endgame

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Chapter One


"When I found that idea I simply couldn't resist playing it. And look, people talk about me as a player who doesn't care about beauty. That's not true. It's simply that during the game each person sees beauty in different things. I like the beauty of the endgame, but I also get pleasure from finding ideas." - Magnus Carlsen


 

Yamanaka Ino


The blonde haired florist deftly swirled the pink colored cream into the shape of a rose inside the wide cylindrical glass bottles arrayed across the counter. She screwed on the caps tightly before setting them in a box alongside the lilac pastes that she had assembled yesterday. The delicate calligraphy on the labels had dried earlier in the week, so she only needed to paint a little glue onto the back and attach them to the glass bottles to complete her work. Yamanaka Flowers: Rose Facial Lotion

Yamanaka Ino placed the pastry bag and dirty mortar and pestle into the large aluminum sink in the back room. She tried not to look at the ten beautiful flower arrangements that she had worked on last night. The demand for funeral arrangements was becoming almost oppressive. It was good for business, but not for her own sanity.

She picked up the box of lotions and walked back into the front of the flower shop. Haruno Sakura leaned on the counter at the front of the store, reading through mission reports. It was a slow afternoon at Yamanaka Flowers. There was a single customer, a young woman looking at white roses sitting in the vases on one side of the store.

The pink haired medic raised her head when Ino stopped in front of her, putting down the box of beauty products on the counter. "Thank you for helping me to watch the store, Sakura," said Ino. "It's been so overwhelming these last few weeks."

Sakura smiled at her friend. "I'm glad to help. I only wish you'd asked me earlier. I didn't realize how much work you've been taking on.

Shikamaru's getting worried about you. I don't understand why you won't let him help out too."

Ino ignored her friend and walked out into the shop to see if the young woman admiring the white roses needed any help. Unlike Sakura, who was wearing the navy blue fatigues and forest green flak jacket of Konoha ninja, Ino wore a short sleeve purple shirt and black jeans. The purple shirt was loose and unadorned, but had some detailing at the neckline, with some silver spiraling vines and leaves.

The customer picked a rose out of the vase, mindful of the thorns. It was a striking contrast against her knee length black dress; though perhaps a flower with more color would be more appropriate. She was so sick of the black garments and white flowers for mourning.

"Good afternoon," said Ino standing next to the woman. "Welcome to Yamanaka Flowers. Was there anything in particular that you were looking for?"

When their eyes met, Ino understood in a moment what the other woman was there for. It was the same look that greeted her every morning in the mirror. There was a profound sadness in the other woman's eyes. "I'm looking for an arrangement for a grave. My fiancé passed during the war. He was a shinobi."

Ino took a step forward and placed a hand kindly on the other woman's arm. "I'm so sorry for your loss. He must have been a brave man to die in battle."

Sakura watched as Ino took the other woman around the store, plucking flowers out of vases. "Red and white roses represent the love and faithfulness you hold for your fiancé. Our Hyacinths are very fine this time of year; the white and purples ones will look nice next to the roses. Hyacinths of these colors represent grief and prayer."

Ino held out the bouquet to the other woman who took it gratefully. "This is beautiful, thank you." The other woman seemed to recognize something within Ino's expression and asked, "Did you lose someone in the war too?"

Ino smiled sadly, "Yes. Yes, I did. My father, my godfather, my sensei, my clansmen, my classmates, my friends, my allies, my - … all of us were hurt by this war."

The woman blinked in surprise. "I didn't realize that you were a kunoichi. I'm sorry for your loss."

Ino wrapped up the flowers while Sakura saw to the bill at the counter. The woman bowed to the two kunoichi and left the store, heading to the graveyard on the edge of the city. It had grown so large.

Sakura closed the file folder and rose from her seat behind the counter. "I need to get going, Ino. I promised Kakashi that I would help him assign these new C rank missions before the end of the day. I'll need to get going now to give myself enough time to summon the squads and assign the missions. Are you going to be alright here by yourself?"

Ino glanced down at her hands. "Go ahead. I'll be fine. You shouldn't keep the Hokage waiting. Thank you for helping out this afternoon, Sakura."


Interlude


His mother had urged him to check on her on the eve of her father's funeral. With all the casualties from the war, there was an endless string of funerals throughout the five shinobi countries. His own father's funeral was the day after tomorrow. He wandered into town, discarding his chunin vest for the black garments that told the world he was in mourning

He had been surprised to learn that one of the first things she did after returning to Konoha three weeks after him was reopening her father's flower shop. It seemed to him like a sentimental waste of time. What use were flowers in a time like this? Her skills would be better served in the T&I department that Ibiki was trying to rebuild. Shikamaru knew that the Tokubetsu Jonin was desperate for her to join.

The sign over the door read closed, but he saw that there was a faint light coming from the shop. She was probably in the back room preparing flower arrangements. When she didn't answer his knock and call, he decided to go check on her himself. Sighing in annoyance, he took out a piece of ninja wire and a kunai and worked on picking the lock. It sprang open with little urging. Locking the door behind him and flipping on the lights, he thrust his hands in his pockets and slouched over to the back room.

She must have spent a great deal of time reassembling her inventory. The store looked much different than it had, but it still had that same smells: the delicate fragrance of flowers and the earthy smell of dirt. There were even some flowers that he had never seen before. Maybe she brought them back from the Land of Lightening. The flowers had blossomed in the warm spring air. Konoha for the most part was temperate most of the year, but the flowers really flourished in May and June. Now in the first week of May, Yamanaka flowers was in full bloom.

There was a light coming from the back room. There were lamps hanging from the three load bearing pillars in the middle of the room. He glanced around in surprise. Every free bit of space in the middle of the room was taken up by large arrangements of flowers. Orchids, roses, magnolias, crocuses, carnations, tulips, camellias, poppies, hyacinths, chrysanthemums, and lilies exploded from vases, wreaths, baskets, and decorative metal tripods.

The girl he was looking for was in front of a large wreath of white roses. She sat back on her knees in a bed of crushed white rose petals. Her hair was a river of gold in the swaying light of one of the lamps. She had not bothered to put an apron over her black mourning dress. The aprons hung forgotten over the door and her black dress was dusted with dirt and flower petals.

His heart thudded with worry in his chest. She was sitting very still, staring down at her hands. Running over, he fell to his knees beside her. He grasped her small hands in his and looked her over with worry. "What's wrong?"

She continued staring down at her hands. Her voice was small and unnerving. "It pricked me. I didn't expect it to prick me. But it's beautiful… the splash of crimson, like blood. Red roses. I should add red roses to the wreath. They'll like that."

"Ino, look at me!" he commanded, putting a hand under her chin.

She finally looked at him. The light from the lamps reflected on the tracks of dried tears down her cheeks. Her blue eyes, red rimmed and unfocused, looked eerie in the small patch of light. "Shikamaru?" She raised a delicate hand to his cheek, her eyes drinking him in. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do. They've all left me. How am I supposed to do this on my own?"

"I'm here. I'll do anything you need me to do. I'll never leave you."

Almost in a daze, she straightened and leaned towards him. Just before her lips met his, she whispered, "Please, I don't want to be alone tonight."

They made love in the backroom of her father's store on a bed of white roses. With the moon shining bright through the high windows, he carried her upstairs to her bedroom where they surrendered to their passion again. In the circle of his arms, she felt safe. He kept her fears at bay.


Nara Shikamaru


Nara Shikamaru strolled through downtown on his way to the Hokage Building. He had been summoned for another meeting with the Hokage. Konoha had turned into an unfamiliar city these days. The demands for rebuilding after Pein's attack, the missing generation of shinobi lost during the war, and the post war economic boom had turned the village into a strange parallel of what it had been before.

Missions were pouring in faster than Konoha could complete them. There were rebuilding missions from other lands that had suffered during the war. There were escort missions for civilians displaced during the war and others who sought refuge in the new worlds open to them in this time of peace in the shinobi world. There were diplomatic missions from the other major and minor shinobi villages trying to strengthen alliances and consolidate their power. Three of the five shinobi villages had lost their kage's during the war and the new rulers were working hard to strengthen ties. Upstart villages saw this as an opportunity to rise to prominence.

Senju Tsunade had died during the Fourth Great Ninja War and Hatake Kakashi was elected as the Rokudaime Hokage. Uzumaki Naruto, the Hero of the Ninja World and the Second Coming of the Sage of the Sixth Paths, had been heavily contested to assume the mantle. However, he was still young. The jonin of the village thought it prudent to wait several years before having him ascend to the position.

There were power gaps in every department in Konoha. A great many department heads had perished during the war leaving holes for their subordinates to fill. Some could never really be filled, but the will of fire prevailed.

Shikamaru had been surprised when Kakashi asked him to assume his father's position as one of his advisors. Shikaku's position as jonin commander had been filled by Might Gai, a surprising appointment to be sure.

Sabaku no Gaara and Mei Terumi had both survived the war; though, A of Kumogakure and Onoki of Iwagakure had died in the fighting. The heirs apparent, Darui and Kitsuchi respectively, had assumed the mantle of kage. Rebuilding and restructuring was the main focus of the shinobi villages as they sought to consolidate their power.

Nodding to the chunin guarding the front gate, Shikamaru made his way inside. Tucking the large file folder under his arm, he pulled open the heavy front door and crossed the atrium on the way to the stairs. Like so much of Konoha, the Hokage Tower had been completely rebuilt.

The building was immense. The massive round base of the building rose to a dome with six towers arrayed around the outside. The atrium was a wide open gallery now used for meetings and celebrations by the ninja of Konoha. Immense stone columns rose in two aisles along the atrium. The columns split after the elaborate capitals to rise up into the ceiling like branches of trees. Shikamaru had stood proudly in the center of the atrium on a platform as he was promoted to full jonin. Ino and Choji stood in the front row cheering and beaming at him.
Iruka and Sakura should be about done with assigning the C, D, and E rank missions to the genin squads and academy students. Yesterday Shizune had split the A and B rank missions into two piles and handed half to Shikamaru. He had sat at his desk all night poring over the mission specs and the lists of eligible ninja trying to find the optimal arrangements for the missions to guarantee their success.

Shikamaru wasn't sure if he should be impressed or annoyed with the Rokudaime Hokage's ability to delegate work. With Iruka, Sakura, Shizune and himself assigning the A, B, C, D, and E ranked missions and going over the missions reports, it freed up a lot of time for Kakashi to pore over the S-Rank missions and his Icha Icha books. S-Rank missions were more common these days than they might have been in times of peace, but there were still very few of them. Kakashi had even more or less signed over the assignment of ANBU missions to Captain Yamato, the ANBU commander. Yamato had taken on a lot new responsibilities these days. He was also working with Sai to integrate the Root division back into the regular shinobi forces. Naruto, a member of Kakashi's ANBU, moonlighted as an ambassador to the other shinobi villages.

Shikamaru met Shizune at the door to the Mission Assignment Hall. The chunin and jonin they had summoned for missions were already beginning to gather in the hallway. He waved at Kiba and Shino who were arguing towards the front of the line. They followed him into the room where Shizune was sitting and already sorting through her files. Akamaru padded in after Kiba.

Glancing up she said, "I have an escort mission for you. It's classified as B to C rank, though the pay will be A rank."

"Nice!" said Kiba excitedly.

"May I inquire as to why Kiba and I will have the great fortune of such a low risk, high paying mission?" questioned Shino.

Shizune coughed awkwardly. "The Daimyo of the Land of Fangs and his daughter will be visiting the Daimyo in the Land of Frost. The two

Daimyo became friends during the war while they were both being kept in the safe house. The Daimyo of the Land of Fangs loves dogs and specifically sent the request to Konoha because he wanted a member of the Inuzuka clan to be one of the guards."

"Did you hear that, Shino? I'm famous, how about that!"

"No accounting for taste, I guess," was Shino's droll reply.

Akamaru let out a bark of laughter. Kiba whirled on his faithful ninja hound. "Hey Akamaru, who's side are you on anyway?" The dog barked out a reply to which Kiba replied frowning, "Your point? They asked Konoha because they wanted both of us, not just you! They want a shinobi and his ninja hound partner."

Shikamaru sighed as Shino and Kiba began berating each other. "Here's the scroll with the mission details. Send in Aoba, Genma and Raido next."

Yamashiro Aoba, Shiranui Genma, and Raido Namiashi walked in after Kiba and Shino. Shikamaru could still hear Kiba's loud voice. The three Tokubetsu Jonin stood at attention in front of Shizune and Shikamaru. Genma took a step forward and accepted the scroll that Shizune held out for him.

"We have an information gathering mission for the three of you in the Land of Hot Water. You are to investigate the legitimacy of the intel we received from an anonymous source that the Yakuza family is planning to overthrow the Land of Hot Water's daimyo.

"A shinobi village is being started in Land of Hot Water where Yugakure once stood and we believe the Yakuza family is involved. Yugakure was a small ninja village almost destroyed after the Akatsuki member Hidan slaughtered nearly everyone in the village. The Land of Hot Water is located north of the Land of Fire and across a small sea from the Land of Lightening. Konoha is very interested in the affairs going on so close to our borders. We want to discover the Yakuza family's involvement and if there is any loyalty to the Akatsuki member Hidan in that village. We cannot stress enough that no one must know of Konoha's involvement in the investigation."

The three men nodded and disappeared from the room in a swirl of leaves.